TAMPA, FLA. — Jim Benning listened to owner Francesco Aquilini’s state-of-the-union address on Thursday, but he didn’t have to. The Vancouver Canucks general manager already knew the material.
“That’s the message that he’s given us,” Benning said during the Canucks’ 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. “He’s a passionate owner. He’s a local owner who wants the team to do well. What I’ve tried to do is be honest with him about where the team is. He’s been receptive to our plan about drafting well and developing our players. For that, I’m grateful.”
Aquilini, who rarely does interviews and had not spoken publicly about the Canucks since president Trevor Linden left in July after his relationship with ownership became untenable, pledged patience for the team’s rebuild and support for Benning during a 40-minute radio interview on Sportsnet 650 in Vancouver.
Aquilini refused to discuss Linden’s departure, except to say: “Over time, things change. We have different businesses; they evolve. Trevor’s been great. I really don’t want to get into it here. Out of respect for Trevor and the current management team, I just want to wish him the best and I just want to leave it at that.”
But the managing partner in patriarch Luigi Aquilini’s ownership family enthusiastically endorsed the Canucks rebuild that Linden devised and Benning continues to implement.
The Canucks have badly missed the playoffs the last three seasons and are expected to do so again this year. But under Benning, the organization has assembled the deepest prospect pool in franchise history and, according to several outlets, one of the most talented groups of prospects in the NHL.
It’s easier to advocate patience than practice it, but the Aquilinis have given Benning time and latitude to rebuild the Canucks. Although Francesco’s 650 interview provided few surprises, it did confirm what appears to be uniform thinking between ownership and management — something that was unclear in the wake of Linden’s shock exit.
“Is it hard? Absolutely,” Aquilini said of enduring the rebuild. “But at the same time, you have to be realistic. You can’t stay at the top all the time. We were good for, what, a good 10 years? That’s a long run. Now we’re dealing with rebuilding again and getting these young players to develop a core.”
At one point, Aquilini said: “Jim makes the hockey decisions. He talks to me all the time and I support him. There’s no shortcuts.”
It was easy to be patient Thursday night because two pillars of the Canucks’ future, Calder Trophy candidate Elias Pettersson and rookie-of-the-year runner-up Brock Boeser, each scored in a third-period rally against the Lightning.
Much easier, Benning admitted, than his phone call to Aquilini last week to tell the owner he’d be paying $6.3 million USD for veteran Sam Gagner to play in the minors the next two seasons. Gagner, signed by Benning as a free agent only 15 months earlier, was a victim of the Canucks’ youth movement and waived on the eve of the regular season.
“It was a hard conversation,” Benning said. “I tried to explain to him that we had signed Sam but we felt younger players had outperformed him at camp. I was talking about (Nikolay) Goldobin, mostly. We had to make a hard decision on that, and it was hard to have to call him up and explain it. But at the end of the conversation he understood. That was the hardest call I’ve had to make to him.”
Aquilini told Sportsnet: “When they made that decision to put Sam in the minors, when they told me, I wasn’t happy about it. I mean, it’s $3 million (per season). It’s crazy, but that’s what was necessary.”
Just what you’d want to hear from an owner.